Johnny Sompholphardy arrived at a crossroads in his chemical engineering career after eight years on the job. The Houston native whose family immigrated from Laos took his confusion to a mentor, who told him something that Sompholphardy still talks about as the genesis of his company Phaya Naga Foods: “If you want to make an impact on the world, you need to consider everything about you that makes you unique and apply that in your career.”
Shortly after, he had the chance to move to Weatherford, Oklahoma, to work for Kodak. “Moving from a city like Houston to Weatherford, I suddenly had tons of time on my hands,” he said. “I started digging into my Laotian heritage to investigate what made me unique. I had already learned that the best thing about Lao culture is the people, and second is the food.”
He began experimenting with Lao cuisine, but he could never produce food as good as his mother’s, so he called her. “I asked her what was missing, and she said, ‘You’re missing the sauce and the people to share it with.’ I started with her sauce recipe and tweaked in ways to make it my own. It was the first product I developed for Phaya Naga Foods.”
Sompholphardy spent hours perfecting the sauce, but also making it shelf stable, something his background in chemistry made easier. He shared what would become Vatsana’s (named for his mother) Citrus Hot Sauce with family and friends to – in his words – validate its authenticity, and then he entered it in a couple hot sauce contests, where it showed well. By October 2019, he was ready to launch, so he quit his engineering job and started selling hot sauce.
“I went to the farmers market in Scissortail Park every chance I could, and I met people, shared my Lao heritage, and sold hot sauce,” he said. “I also took an informal poll, and I learned that just over 40 percent of the people who came by my booth didn’t like spicy food.”
Sompholphardy then decided to expand his product line with a product that went against “my Lao soul,” he said with a laugh. “I made non-spicy hot sauce.” He said it as if he were in a confessional. His product line now includes a dry rub or seasoning that works beautifully to finish mango, melon and veggies. He also had some fun using the Lao staple jaew – a pepper sauce much like chunky salsa – into a spicy salsa that you won’t mind dipping a chip in, but it is spicy.
When Selena Skorman reached out to him on Linked In about the G Beta accelerator program, Sompholphardy quickly agreed to attend a pitch night. “I was hooked right away,” he said. “I started the accelerator in March, and it was a great decision. Through conversations with mentors and cohort participants, I learned how to add even more value to my brand and products by drawing more intentionally from my unique roots.”
Sompholphardy still shows up at the Scissortail farmers market every Saturday, and his products, all of which are manufactured in Oklahoma City, are now available in stores across five states and the UK. “I want to be the next Sriracha,” he said. “I want to put Vasana’s in everyone’s hands, and I want it to be the biggest Lao-inspired Asian brand in the country.”